Monday, 18 April 2011

Ten Things I Wish I'd Been Told About the LIS Sector

Exactly what it says on the tin. The Wikiman and other new info pros have no doubt weighed in on this, but here's a fairly succinct list of things I really, really wish I'd been told three years ago, when I informed my largely skeptical colleagues at the DVLA that I was leaving them to become a graduate trainee librarian:
  1. There are no 59 year-old baby boomers who can't wait to give their (well-paid, interesting and relatively secure) jobs to you, at least in the UK and in the two academic libraries I work for. Sorry. You'll need to be more proactive in job-hunting than waiting around for people to retire and/or die.

  2. To channel my inner indie kid and quote Regina Spektor: "People are just people, they shouldn't make you nervous." Yeah, there are a few bad eggs as with any large group, but LIS folk are genuinely one of the nicest groups of people about. Don't ever, ever be scared to express your opinion to anyone at any level of your organisation. The worst they can say is 'no', and having received negative feedback about my reticence, I have concluded that the future of this profession will not belong to the meek and mild.

  3. Scores of talented, brilliant and ambitious people find themselves unemployed for quite some time after their postgraduate courses finish. You may need to take on a paraprofessional post as a shelver or library porter, step sideways, or take a job in a related area such as university administration or database management. The more you narrow your options to one specific area, the harder it is to find something. There is no clearly-defined path for career progression in many LIS posts, and it can be hard to move up through the ranks. Giving my own situation, as a customer service supervisor, I don't have management experience, so I don't meet the job description for many customer service management roles. Frustrating doesn't even begin to cover it.

  4. Following on from this, it's likely your first job (or jobs) will be fixed-term, part-time, away from where you live now, in an area you don't particularly want to live in and will involve working evenings and/or weekends. I work two part-time jobs in two different cities, and work twelve days in a row on alternative weeks. It's not pretty, and I don't intend on it forever, but I'm not alone: one of my colleagues works on weekends with me, is a librarian in an FE college in a different city three days a week, and is studying part-time for a BA in librarianship.

  5. We're not 'one big profession'. See below blog post for details how we don't stick together at times. Law libraries, financial organisations, public libraries and academic libraries all seem to prefer dealing with their own, and it can be tricky to move between sectors. (I've applied to several LIS jobs in the private sector to no avail, yet have been interviewed for almost every academic role I've applied for. What impresses one sector will not necessarily impress the other. The alternative is that I'm rubbish at application forms, but I'm fairly certain my application forms rock.)

  6. You will always have to defend what you do to people. Every time I mention in passing to a customer that I'm finishing up my dissertation, and they ask what in, they always say, "why do you need a Masters degree for that?" People just don't realise what we do, and if you have a job title which isn't straight-up librarian? Good luck explaining until your throat goes hoarse. And if you don't explain? It just perpetuates the myths.

  7. Every single job in a library and information environment will contain routine tasks. There may be some days, or even weeks, where all you do is routine tasks. Case in point: I spend up to three hours on busy days unpacking books from transit boxes. If you can't deal with this? Don't take it on.

  8. Market yourself, whether you like it or not. My Graduate Trainee induction should have included sessions on making the most of Twitter, setting up a blog, networking your behind off, writing memorable conference paper proposals and making small talk with people you want to impress but have very little common ground with. Thankfully, New Professionals Network has much of this for you. I'm somewhat guilty of neglecting Twitter from time to time, but I know people who don't get involved with professional organisations or social networking at all. I'm not saying this will hold you back from a long and fulfilling career, but how successful will you be if you don't know what else is happening in the profession?

  9. You are more awesome than you realise. Until the Turning test is passed, it's us LIS folk who provide the world with the information it needs and will continue to do so. In thirty years or so, you may well be doing a job which doesn't exist yet.

  10. Don't panic, and don't despair. I know plenty of new professionals who have wound up with their ideal jobs almost immediately after finishing their postgraduate courses. There might not be hundreds of applicants. In fact, I was told there were 243 applicants for my current (paraprofessional) post, and forty or so for the last academic librarian job advertised. Face it: someone is going to obtain that job you've been drooling over, and if you plan and prepare your heart out, why can't it be you?

Sunday, 10 April 2011

We're all one profession: why not campaign like one?:

We’re all one profession, aren’t we?

I'm beginning to doubt that, considering some of the remarks I've heard colleagues and MSc coursemates make about public libraries. I've discussed this with Lauren and Magpie Librarian mentions the antipathy of MLS students towards library advocacy in her excellent post.

Who hasn't read articles like this? They're rarely serious -- oh, old librarians with sour faces and pushy parents using the library as babysitter and people using it like a DVD rental shop ha ha, nice one. I want to roll my eyes, but the truth is that many of my colleagues and coursemates have a similar opinion of public libraries. They're just reluctant to admit it to a vociferous library advocate.

Due to this, I thought it'd be helpful to list some of the comments I've received, and my responses. Perhaps they'll help you, or your colleagues, to view public libraries in a more positive light.

1. “I don’t work in a public library. Why should I care?”

"My kids aren't going to university. Why should I care about tuition fees?"

"I don't live in socially rented housing. Why should I care about housing benefit reform?"

"I don't use the local shop because I can drive. Why should I care if it closes?

Oh, how easy it is to only have passion for the things directly affecting us. Unfortunately, if we did, the world would be an even more selfish and unpleasant place.

Aside from the fact that public libraries are vital to their communities, public library staff don't always have a voice. The council prohibits many from campaigning, or displaying petitions inside their libraries. Imagine if ten percent of libraries in your sector were facing the axe, but you couldn’t do or say much about it for fear of reprisals. If you couldn’t use your voice, wouldn’t you want the rest of the profession to speak up for you?

2. “Our course doesn't cover public libraries much, so they can't be important.”

You're right. Our course doesn't. The one exception was a very polemic lecture we had which entailed a guest speaker claiming public library users were universally white, educated and wouldn’t know what deprivation was if it hit them in their faces.

This doesn't mean public libraries aren't important. Read up on Carnegie libraries, public libraries and democratic engagement, public libraries and social exclusion or even recent news articles that show the link between reading and educational attainment. Browse through Public Libraries News. Then, come back to me if you still think it’s acceptable that some Masters courses in Librarianship and Information Science barely cover public libraries.

It's so easy to write about what we know, but why not write about public libraries for an assignment or even your dissertation? Why not mention to the course leader that you'd like public libraries to be covered in greater depth, too?

3. “The University’s Library gives me everything I need.”

At this point, yes, it does. (Or at least it should do.) You’re a student.

However, public libraries are far more than books. In ten years time when you want to trace your family history using the large volume of records which haven’t been digitised, you’re dying to read that out of print book which costs £30 on Amazon second-hand, needing to access the Internet to access council services online when your laptop’s broken or want to find reliable, free sources of information for your child’s school project? University library not looking so great now, is it?

4. “Can’t people just use Amazon or go to a bookshop if they need a place to read?”

See the above paragraph. Public libraries are far more than warehouses of books, even if they don’t have a Starbucks attached. (Though increasingly, many do have caf├ęs…)

Even if people can afford to purchase the information they need, it's not always avalilable for a couple of pounds on Amazon. Are you aware of how much sheet music and scores can cost? What about a subscription to COBRA, Ancestry or British Standards Online? (All of which are free to access via many public libraries.)

5. "I'm too busy to campaign!"

We're all busy. Nobody is expecting you to channel library advocacy into every sliver of spare time you have

One minute? Add a local campaign to Twitter or follow a site like Public Libraries News, giving you an easy way to keep informed with what’s going on in your local area and the UK as a whole.

Two minutes? Sign a petition online, or go to and pledge your support.

Five minutes? Print out some leaflets or fliers and leave them at a local doctor’s surgery, convenience shop, sports hall or community centre. There’s no need to go out of your way – just ask at places you’d visit on your everyday errands.

Ten minutes? Write a letter to your MP, or set up a petition if there isn’t one in your area.

You can do any of these during a tea break, and still have plenty of time to drink your tea.

And, finally, the most crude and the most common:

“My public library smells and is full of homeless people!”

I asked this person when she last visited her local public library. It was in 1994. So many people are quick to say similar things about public libraries, but haven’t actually visited one for many years. Pop down to your local public library; it might surprise you!

Libraries aren’t like bookshops. They’re free, and open to all, and they won’t kick you out for grabbing a pile of books and reading them from when the library opens until when it closes. And, without wanting to play the world’s smallest violin, I was very briefly homeless as a teenager. I was fortunate enough to have friends to stay with, but Reading Central Library would recommend me books and graphic novels I’d like, and provide me with free word processing facilities to complete coursework.

I wasn’t a threat to anyone: books just made life a whole lot better during those really dark days.


If you work in a library or are studying for a library qualification and aren’t willing to support public libraries? Perhaps you won’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.